I spend a lot of time with clients who are bravely walking through change. The goal of our work is always to promote healing; individually and relationally. Some relationships can be strengthened and improved, while others must end before healing can begin.
Endings, goodbyes, transitions. How many of us think of these words and are filled with eager anticipation and excitement? Easy answer, right? Not many of us would say that our first thought is “Awesome! I can’t wait to plunge headlong into my next farewell!” It’s human nature to have a sense of foreboding when it comes to any ending, whether planned or unexpected. Despite the understanding that the only certainty we have in this life is change, many of us would rather not step into it willingly. We may find that we cling to the familiar, be it in jobs, people, or places because “sameness” provides a sense of predictable security. So what do we do when change is forced upon us or necessary for our individual or collective well being?
One of the most painful changes we will experience is the end of a relationship. When death is not the cause of the ending, we all wrestle with the implication of one word, choice. Choice adds a layer of complexity when contemplating the fate of a relationship. Even if the decision to part ways is mutual, the emotional and logistical implications seldom look like a Hollywood movie ending. We are flooded with questions of whether or not the ending is permanent or temporary. "Should I hold out hope or move on?" Choice creates uncertainty about finality. Our work is about finding a place of acceptance in what today holds, regardless of the pull of the past or the anticipation of the future.
An important consideration for all caring human beings is that endings are painful, no matter what side you find yourself on. People are often surprised that suffering is not rank ordered; the end of a romantic relationship is not necessarily more painful than the end of a close friendship, nor is a cutoff between siblings less painful than the estrangement between a parent and child. Confusion is a common theme we wrestle with. We may bury ourselves in second guessing, rumination, endless questions of “why”, what if, and lots of hurt. We look for a place to put our pain so we can make sense of it in our head when our heart feels such sorrow. We are desperate to cling to anything that helps us eradicate the source of our suffering.
Which Side of the Fence am I on?
Let’s first consider the person who does not choose to end the relationship. When the choice is made for us we can feel rejected, abandoned and not good enough. There are usually layers of feelings, and just when we think we’ve processed through one set of emotions, new ones come knocking. We can vacillate between anger, sadness, betrayal, loneliness, isolation, etc. Our self worth can take a nose dive as we assess our role in the split and imply a direct connection to our personal value. We may want to blame - either ourselves or the person who ended it. We may feel like a victim, fixating on what was done to us. We may question the relationship in its entirety when it feels as if all we are left with is the hurt. There is no way around the fact that it is just plain hard when someone chooses to leave us.
Then there is the person who initiates the break. If we are trapped in resentment or anger, we may find it’s all about blame. Our focus can get stuck and all we see are the actions or behaviors of the other person, "They gave me no choice - I had to leave". On the other hand, if we take full ownership of our decision to step away from a relationship we can feel like the villain. We may find ourselves mired in guilt, remorse, and uncertainty. It can feel as if making a break suddenly means that we are no longer compassionate and we fear being seen as uncaring and unkind. We may save the most hurtful descriptions for ourselves because we struggle to see the rationale beyond the pain induced by the breakup itself. We fail to embrace the grief because we would rather hold the guilt. As the initiator, we withhold permission to experience the impact of the loss since we chose the path. We refuse to let ourselves off the hook, and we can’t properly move on until we acknowledge where we’ve been.
Relationships are an investment; emotionally and mentally. The book Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud describes the investment as the energy we pour into the relationship. In order to move on, we must take energy out of the relationship, and to do that we must grieve. We must feel the feelings we are experiencing and acknowledge the reality of the ending (Cloud, 2010). Most of us want to skip this process; we want to force fit a fix, offload our hurt externally, or we want to downplay the significance of the situation, swallow the emotions and jump forward past the grief. Unfortunately we can't bypass this process and we will find that unprocessed grief can weigh us down for weeks, months, or years.
This is where we can advocate for our own healing with intentionality and compassion. This is where we have choice to create something different for ourselves, our current relationships and our future. Not an easy prospect when choosing the healing path requires that we look at our pain and hold the reality of our circumstance in the present moment. It is the most authentic response we can choose as it helps us to honor our emotion and our experience with honesty and integrity.
Check back soon for part 2 of this post as we explore the process of grieving and working through.
Henry Cloud. (2011). Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward. HarperCollins.
NOTE: This post is not intended to provide the reader with advice about how to handle their specific situation. If a relationship contains any elements of coercion or violence, personal safety should always be the foremost concern. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, talk to someone who can provide help and guidance: http://www.thehotline.org To find a local domestic violence agency near you call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
There is a power in bearing witness to unfiltered truth and raw experience. It can also result in uncomfortable vulnerability, even when the story is not our own. Just being close to such unguarded candor opens the door to introspection. If we’re brave enough, we step forward to view our own barometers of self acceptance and authenticity. After reading Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, I felt as if I’d been given permission to peek behind the curtain of my own inner realm with timid apprehension. The point isn't to compare the similarity of our stories. It's that you can’t help but trip over feelings that mirror our own experience simply because she reaches a place of brutal honesty about all that we are afraid to reveal about our own self limiting beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs may be. Is this a story of our collective truth? How much do we skim the surface of life and experience; afraid to look in the mirror long enough to recognize how much or little of ourselves we truly reveal? More than a limited view; the truth often speaks of our discomfort in seeing just how much we really hide from ourselves.
We all recognize an undercurrent of collaborative inauthenticity any time we work to maintain outward appearances. The image we portray outwardly often stands in stark contrast to the story we tell ourselves about who we really are. Ironically we may find that we share a deep connection in our silence. These societal and self imposed rules of engagement create fear of how we appear to others. Fear that our inner dialogue translates into not being a good enough parent or friend or child. Fear that we don’t love as we should. Fear that we aren’t smart enough, thin enough, attractive enough or brave enough. Fear that deep down we are unworthy of love and acceptance. Fear that tells us if anyone really understood the thoughts and feelings we push into the darkest corners of our heart and mind, we would be ostracized even more than we already isolate ourselves.
Because we are so strictly governed by cultural and societal rules, we force ourselves to choose between competing values of appropriateness and authenticity. We choose between our gifts and our goals, and if we aren’t careful we find ourself living a life structured and prioritized solely by what we should do and who we should be. In turn, we dim the light meant to illuminate who we truly are. That doesn’t presume we abandon our responsibility or moral compass in favor of a life of self indulgence. We are constantly being sold the idea that if we chase the image of the American dream; money, sex, career, then we can achieve the end goal of “stuff” that will make us happy and fulfilled. It is the conflicting pursuit of “doing” over “being” that has us numb and distract and self medicate to quiet the voice that says we aren’t good enough to achieve the unattainable goals we have been force-fed. We need the occasional reality check that has us stop, check in, and ask ourselves, “what am I chasing, and is it in line with my foundational values?”. The honesty, vulnerability and authenticity required to question the the path we travel requires courage. This self exploration exposes us to potential pain and rejection, but also creates a path for growth, healing, and deep connection. You are worth the risk!
Gina Waltmire, LMFT
Gina is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Overland Park, KS
This is the second in a two part blog post exploring personal boundaries and expectations.
Holding rigid expectations for yourself and those around you creates a sense of anxiety and powerlessness. So how do you know if this is a problem for you? Begin by getting curious about your notion of boundaries… Where does your responsibility truly begin and end? When you think about an area of personal struggle, what part of the struggle are you responsible for and what extends beyond your control? Where do your expectations violate the property lines of others? Is your goal to protect yourself or have others abide by your rules?
Any time someone fails to adhere to your standards, it can create a negative perception of their intentions and motivations. When you fall into the trap that this anxiety creates, you are prisoner to your lack of control by becoming a prisoner to the actions of others.
Ask yourself, is your peace of mind reliant on the behavior of others? Do you need someone to say or do things a certain way so that you feel ok? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you might be struggling with boundaries, rigid expectations, or both. You may find yourself stuck in a trap where you have relinquished your personal power and happiness to things, circumstances, and people you cannot control. Many times there is an undercurrent of need; a void that you have longed to fill outside yourself that can stem from any number of situations that merit exploration.
We have all struggled to maintain healthy boundaries and expectations at some point in our lives. Only when we recognize that our methods are no longer working for us can we hope to create something different. We have to be open to change and the possibility that a different approach is necessary. There is nothing wrong with clear defensible boundaries and setting reasonable expectations for how we want to live our life. We enter into murky waters when we use either boundaries or expectations as a method of controlling others or as a measure of our own worth and value.
Accepting that life and relationships contain both freedom and uncertainty churns up a lot of emotion; for some it creates anxiety knowing how much of life is beyond our control, to others it creates excitement and anticipation about the potential and possibility of our unwritten future. Somewhere in between lies a middle ground where we are free to dream and imagine what life will hold. It is only when our dreams are balanced with a measure of acceptance of the reality and unpredictability of our world will we be equipped to handle the curveballs that get thrown in our direction, because the curveballs always come.
Mental health care has a definite presence in the world of popular culture so there always seems to be a current buzz word. From mindfulness to meditation; any time we toss around words with a one size fits all mindset the meaning and relevance can get lost. Terminology becomes watered down, trendy, and misunderstood. Boundaries and expectations are two of the most overused and often most misunderstood words that I hear in my office with regularity. In regard to our physical and emotional health, let’s take a moment to define a boundary and an expectation.
Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend are among the most well known authorities in the area of personal boundaries. According to Cloud & Townsend a boundary helps us understand what we are responsible for. Said of boundaries; “they define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” (Cloud & Townsend, 1992). It is easy to understand when we consider physical property. When we own a piece of land, it is contained within physical property lines that designate what I own and what I do not own. We apply the same logic to personal boundaries to understand what I am responsible for and what I’m not.
In it’s most basic form, an expectation can be defined as a belief about what might happen in the future. When we apply expectations to personal behavior or relationship, that definition often changes from what might happen, to what should happen. Expectations are often confused with boundaries when we struggle to define our property lines. If I begin formulating expectations of other people and their behavior as if it is within my right to do so, I hit the slippery slope. I extend my property rights outside of what I truly own and am responsible for when these expectations become demands to control the behavior of someone else.
You can already begin to see how quickly a relationship can enter complex and confusing territory. A desire to help and care for others can turn to codependent and enabling behavior just as easily as a desire for structure and security can result in inflexibility and ultimatums. We’ve already touched on enough content for countless conversations and self analysis. I always stress that you should choose carefully when you engage in conversation about personal and sensitive topics. Talk with someone you trust, who has your best interest at heart; a friend, family member or trained professional who is there to help you grow! Check back in a few days for part 2 of this post and we will briefly consider some questions that can help us begin to understand when and where we might find ourselves getting off track.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (1992). Boundaries: When to say yes, when to say no to take control of your life. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House.
As I launch this blog, I think about the endless array of information the internet provides; news, shopping, entertainment, tools and resources. Enter a simple search and millions of results pop up in a fraction of a second inundating us with options and choices. There is a go-to app or website for everything imaginable. Overwhelming abundance and availability creates a demand for anything and everything and a growing reliance on easy access. The line between want and need becomes blurred and we create expectations born of convenience. This level of access should heighten our caution and awareness; not lower our guard. Just because we read it online doesn’t make it true. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Just because you can find it, doesn’t make safe or eliminate responsibility and the need for precaution.
The darker side of the internet creates an illusion of anonymity that welcomes predators and ensnares victims by casting a net to prey upon those who are curious, confused, lost, or simply seeking connection. Feeding on our deepest fears and insecurities, the most innocent of intentions can create mis-steps that may lead to deception, addiction and criminal activity. From pornography, trafficking, gambling, hate crimes to terrorism; the minefield of intolerance, cyber-crime and depravity has grown exponentially. Somewhere in between the helpful conveniences and the seedy underbelly lies an array of ambiguous and indiscriminate information that is unfiltered, uncensored and unproven. This is where we must be vigilant in a world of easy access and instant gratification. Our quest for an immediate return comes at a cost that requires we be discriminating in disseminating the validity, propriety and usefulness of everything we click on. Launch every search with a balance of healthy skepticism and an open mind; a notion of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) and caveat lector (let the reader beware).
As I consider the intent behind this blog as one of many internet offerings; it is put forth with the same level of caution expressed above. When you consider the endless array of advice, self help, and short cuts; filter your findings judiciously. When it comes to emotional health care, consider what you are looking for and what you hope to gain… Insight, support, resources, advice, direction, justification? The purpose of this blog is to promote curiosity, initiate conversation, and encourage exploration around some of the most basic interpersonal and individual issues we encounter in everyday life. Because the internet has become the go-to for so many people searching for help, support, and answers for the more complex situations they face, an anonymous search cannot offer individualized care or connection or thorough resolution one would receive in the presence of a trusted friend or an experienced professional. So move forward with an understanding of what you hope to find. There are wonderful resources available online, from guided meditations to journaling apps, helplines to crisis intervention links. Emotional issues are painful, so it makes sense that we want help and we want it fast. Complex issues typically require more time and support than a search engine can provide. Please move forward with caution and never let a blog or article take the place of quality mental health care that only a qualified professional can provide!
Gina Waltmire, LMFT
Gina is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Overland Park, KS
6701 W. 121st St., Suite 302, Overland Park, KS 66209